Surviving Windows 8
We experienced Windows 8 very differently on a touchscreen tablet and a desktop PC, and came away with different impressions of its positive and negative attributes depending on the device.
We found Metro hard to digest when we first encountered it a year ago. That impression was not helped by the earlier Windows 8 previews. Finally, having spent hands-on time with a Windows 8 tablet (both on its own and docked on a desk), it all makes sense. Scrolling and flicking are buttery smooth, edge gestures work surprisingly well, and there’s a constant thrill to realizing that you’re running full PC hardware and software. Peripherals plugged into the tablet’s USB port just work, you can download any common program from the Web and run it in the Desktop environment, and you can browse though all the files on your SSD and do whatever you like with them. Compared to an iPad, it’s blissfully liberating.
New Explorer with Ribbon
On the downside, Windows 8 tablets will be heavy and bulky, and our impressions with a prototype tablet powered by an Core i5 CPU will be very different to those on Atom-powered ones which will be more common in the market. The 16:9 screen makes the device ungainly to hold, and nothing really looks good or works well in portrait mode. The on-screen keyboard is definitely not suited for typing entire documents, and a huge portion of the screen feels wasted when it’s in use.
It will be interesting to use Windows 8 on touch-enabled ultrabooks and hybrid folding or swiveling laptops—which might be the only way to get the “best of both worlds” experience. Then there’s the added complication of Windows RT, which will look identical to Windows 8 and come on cheaper devices, but will not allow desktop software to run and is heavily limited in other ways as well. It isn't yet clear how Microsoft plans to explain the differences between Windows 8 and Windows RT to consumers, many of whom, we fear, will end up learning them the hard way.
The desktop was another matter altogether. We fully expect that millions of elderly people, office workers and first-time users will struggle to cope with the changes in Windows 8, especially the relationship between the Desktop and Modern environments. Using a mouse to replicate edge gestures is annoying at best, and app switching is a huge pain. We’re also used to feeling more productive with large monitors, so it hurts to see all the space wasted by running a single app fullscreen. Even with a touch-enabled desktop monitor, reaching up from the keyboard to jab at the screen would be too awkward.
Considering all these frustrations, we decided to try a few utilities which claim to replace Start menu. We tried both Classic Shell (free, classicshell.sourceforge.net) and Start8 (US$ 4.99, stardock.com/products/start8). Classic Shell looks a bit cheesy and feels like a third-party utility strapped on to Windows, whereas Start8 feels so slick and well integrated that we quickly forgot it wasn’t a natural part of Windows 8. It not only replicates a Start menu in the new boxy opaque Windows style, but also lets you bypass the Start screen and boot straight into the Desktop environment. You can choose to tap back into the Modern UI at any time, and you can stay within it undisturbed for as long as you like.
Start8 offers roughly 95 percent of the functionality of Windows 7’s Start menu. You’ll still be thrown into the Modern UI when you want to search for anything, or when an app is the default choice for opening files. If you like using any of the hundreds of apps in the Windows Store or even the built-in Mail, People and Messaging apps, you’ll want to jump back in as well. On the other hand, what this means is that it is entirely possible and easy to stay within the Desktop environment for extended periods of time—often several days at a stretch—without noticing or needing the Modern UI.
Explorer file copy conflict resolution
Windows 8 with Start8 on a desktop PC used for daily work was a joy to use, and we can easily imagine many people mentally reconciling the $5 price with the cost of the OS itself and calling it a bundle—as long as Microsoft doesn’t somehow prevent it from working in the future. This is great news for users who don’t want to break from their old habits, but potentially disastrous for Microsoft’s bold new vision of computing. Herein lies Microsoft’s biggest fear: If Modern was optional, it could easily end up like their previous specialised interface, Windows Media Center, which the majority of users ignored. Without an environment to work in, the Windows Store would become useless, and all Microsoft's cross-platform ambitions—including SkyDrive, Windows Phone and Windows RT—would fail to come together in a unified ecosystem, and Microsoft’s competitors would traction over it. That said, we didn’t find any benefit at all in using Start8 on the tablet.
Let’s be honest. As brave and forward-looking a move it is to prioritise the Modern UI, a lot of people are going to hate it, and they’re perfectly justified in feeling that way. As far as tablets go, the Modern UI and its multitouch gestures work really well together but you still do have to dip into the Desktop on occasion. The whole point of the Modern UI is to put everyone on a common platform regardless of the kind of device they use, and ultimately, it doesn't quite achieve that.
People app showing Facebook and Twitter
Windows 8 will feel natural on emerging devices that don’t quite fit into the tablet or laptop mould, but as traditional power users, we’re left somewhat wanting. Microsoft hasn’t done enough yet to make the Modern UI familiar to people, or to reach out to those who will go out to buy a new laptop in the coming weeks or months and be surprised by the new OS. We expect a lot of confusion and plenty of knee-jerk demands for Windows 7 downgrades based on uncertainty alone.
Microsoft deserves praise for innovating and taking such a huge risk. The world is changing and computers are now much more than the sum of their hardware components. Microsoft is doing what it needs to take on the likes of Apple and Google, with users along for the ride whether they like it or not. There's a lot to learn about Windows 8 and we look forward to getting to know it more as the platform and all its apps evolve. We're also optimistic about the prospect of integration with Xbox, SkyDrive and Windows Phone 8. Windows 8 is proof that Microsoft is committed to its new vision, and the Modern UI is the shape of things to come.
Updated 18 Jun, 2013, 11:05 am IST
Windows 8 , Microsoft Windows 8 , Windows , Windows 8 Review , Windows 8 India , Metro , Modern UI , Windows 8 tablet , Windows 8 ultrabook , Windows 8 Features , Win8 , Microsoft Windows , Windows PC , Windows 8 PC
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